March 2, 2020
Joel Gomes

Coronavirus Workplace Impacts & Considerations

March 2, 2020
Joel Gomes

As the world continues to grapple with the spread of the Coronavirus or COVID-19 as it is now identified as, we've been fielding questions from concerned workplaces seeking answers for themselves and on behalf of their employees: What should I do? What are employer obligations? What should I tell my employees? Can I ask employee(s) to stay home if they've just come back from an affected region? Can I ask employee(s) to go get tested? What do I do if employees are asking to stay home?

Here are some key considerations and recommendations as this issue continues to evolve. Keep in mind that as of the writing of this blog, it is still a relatively new illness and not everything is well studied, well documented or well known when it comes to the epidemiology of this virus.

Symptoms of COVID-19 (From Health Canada & Ontario's Ministry of Health)

  • Those who are infected with COVID-19 may have little to no symptoms.
  • You may not know you have symptoms of COVID-19 because they are similar to a cold or flu.
  • Symptoms may take up to 15 days to appear after exposure to COVID-19. This is the longest known infectious period for this disease (current).
  • Symptoms include: fever, cough, difficulty breathing, pneumonia in both lungs, In severe cases, infection can lead to death.

Treatment (From Health Canada & Ontario's Ministry of Health)

  • There are no specific treatments for coronaviruses, and there is no vaccine that protects against coronaviruses.
  • Most people with common human coronavirus illnesses will recover on their own.
  • If you become ill, stay at home and avoid contact with others.
  • You should drink plenty of fluids, get rest and sleep as much as possible, try a humidifier or a hot shower to help with a sore throat or cough.
  • If you need immediate medical attention you should call 911 and mention your travel history and symptoms.
  • When you visit a health care professional, call ahead or tell them when you arrive that you have a respiratory illness. You may be asked to wear a mask while waiting for or receiving treatment to prevent the spread of the illness.

How to Protect Yourself

Coronaviruses are spread mainly from person to person through close contact so there are everyday actions that can help prevent the spread of germs that cause respiratory illnesses. Take these everyday steps to reduce exposure to the virus and protect your health:

  • wash your hands often with soap (min 2 mins) and water.
  • use alcohol-based hand sanitizer or sanitizer wipes.
  • sneeze and cough into your sleeve or a tissue and dispose of said tissue appropriately & immediately.
  • avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • regularly disinfect common work surfaces and enclosed areas (closed offices, your car etc.)
  • heighten general hygiene in common areas.
  • Eat healthy - stay away from raw or undercooked food and meat.
  • avoid individuals with chronic conditions, compromised immune systems and older adults.
  • when possible avoid unnecessary public/social gatherings at your home or in public.
  • avoid contact with people who are sick.
  • stay home if you are sick.
  • If you are travelling to an area known to have cases of coronavirus, be sure to avoid high-risk areas such as farms, live animal markets and areas where animals may be slaughtered contact with animals (alive or dead), including pigs, chickens, ducks and wild birds or surfaces with animal droppings or secretions on them.

Workplace Considerations

  • You cannot ban/stop employee(s) from coming in to work and /or you cannot ask/force employee(s) to take a test for coronavirus without any evidential medical basis for doing so, or without a stated Public Health directive to do so. You may be setting yourself up for a Human Rights complaint to the Ministry of Labour if you do these.
  • Employers can reasonably however, ask employees to disclose their health condition(s) or prognosis as it pertains to any impacts to the workplace. It is best to address this on a case by case basis.
  • Depending on the work environment, and job function permitting, some employers could allow certain employees to work from home as long as you have in place appropriate tools and processes (Laptop, Secure Remote Login, Corporate Security and Privacy Policies etc.) Most employees may NOT be able to do this.
  • If employee(s) unequivocally decides to stay at home, without a valid basis to do so, they can choose to utilize accrued vacation days if they wish to get paid (as applicable).
  • If you have an employee returning from an affected area, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) asks that they monitor their health for fever, cough and difficulty breathing for 14 days after they arrive in Canada. If symptoms develop they must call the public health authority in the province or territory (Ontario Public Health) they reside in, to inform them. The local public health body will provide advice on what should be done next.
  • Employers can reasonably require employees who have travelled to affected areas to self quarantine at home for the period of time (14-15 days) as mandated by PHAC.
  • The key is to be reasonable in your approach considering the fluid nature of the circumstance. As the crisis develops, you will definitely need to communicate effectively and often to keep employees and clients apprised of the situation at your workplace.
  • It would also be a good time to review and prep your company's Pandemic Preparedness or Business Continuity Plan (BCP) in the event that you need to invoke it.
  • Ultimately if employee(s) stay at home against employer advise, without a valid reason (under the Occupational Health & Safety Act (OHSA) Ontario) or without a stated public health directive to do so, the employer may have to consider termination of employment for job abandonment.  Note that OHSA gives a worker the right to refuse work that he or she believes is unsafe to himself/ herself or another worker. However there is a process that needs to be followed.
  • There are tools available to employers in the HR toolkit section of your Beneplan client login. You can also call Beneplan's HR consultant for advise on how to proceed.

Additional Resources


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